Anti-vaccine advocates have for years used foreboding images of syringes to paint vaccinations as dark and dangerous. But recent vaccine conspiracy theories are casting an air of fear around more mundane things, like cows and lettuce.
In posts circulated online in recent weeks, purveyors of disinformation have spread an erroneous narrative that COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are being quietly added to the food supply, threatening a firm vaccine drag.
In some cases, users have misrepresented the limited use of RNA-based vaccines in animals. In others, they have skewed a company’s research into using plants to grow the proteins used in vaccines.
But experts confirm there are no COVID-19 vaccines in your steak or salad. Here are the facts.
CLAIM: COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are being added to the food supply through livestock and produce.
THE FACTS: COVID-19 vaccines aren’t transmitted through livestock or agricultural products, and experts say it wouldn’t be an efficient way to immunize someone. A flurry of social media posts wrongly suggest otherwise.
“The unvaccinated will not go unvaccinated for long with mRNA in the food supply,” reads a tweet shared thousands of times. Another asks, “Did you know they’re giving all of our livestock the covid vaccine this year?”
A TikTok video shared on Instagram, meanwhile, questions whether Whole Foods customers are unknowingly vaccinated with “C19 mRNA injected via food products” and shows images of packets of rocket and lettuce.
In fact, there are no licensed COVID-19 mRNA vaccines for animals, US Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Marissa Perry told the Associated Press. She noted that the department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service “has not approved and does not have any investigational vaccines to vaccinate livestock for COVID-19.”
Some animals, especially those in zoos considered susceptible, have received vaccines against COVID-19. But those vaccinations aren’t based on mRNA technology, said Suresh Kuchipudi, a veterinary scientist and chair of emerging infectious diseases at Penn State University.
In terms of vaccines more generally, there are a few RNA-based vaccines licensed for animals. For example, pharmaceutical company Merck offers a customizable vaccine against influenza and other viruses in pigs to protect a specific herd as needed. This approach predates the advent of human COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, and the technology is not the same.
There are no mRNA vaccines for any disease used in cattle in the United States, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association pointed out in a recent statement against online misinformation. Farmers and ranchers ultimately choose which vaccines, if any, to give to their animals.
Regardless, the idea that an mRNA vaccine could be transmitted to humans through meat consumption isn’t rooted in science.
“No, it can’t be transferred,” Ted Ross, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Georgia and director of the Center for Vaccines and Immunology, said in an email. He said mRNA vaccines have a very short life span in living organisms and degrade.
In addition to the mRNA’s rapid breakdown, it is unlikely to survive the cooking process to hypothetically be passed on to consumers, experts said.
In addition, regulators require something called “withdrawal time,” a minimum amount of time that must elapse between a food animal receiving a vaccine and entering the food chain, Alan Young, professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences at the South Dakota State University recently told the AP.
Also, there is no evidence to support the idea of COVID-19 vaccines being added to production.
TikTok’s Whole Foods video featured a clip from a co-founder of New Jersey-based AeroFarms, an indoor vertical farm that grows leafy greens.
But the video misrepresented the work described by AeroFarms co-founder David Rosenberg. Rosenberg was discussing early research on growing proteins that could theoretically be used for vaccines, not producing edible vaccines that would be on a store shelf.
“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Marc Oshima, co-founder and chief marketing officer of AeroFarms, of the claim that the company’s vegetables contain a COVID-19 vaccine.
The research initiative discussed by Rosenberg, which is no longer active, was part of an R&D arm of the company and separate from its commercial products, Oshima said. Research farms and commercial products are separate spaces.
While some researchers have explored the possibility of growing edible vaccines — an attractive idea for use in countries where vaccine storage can be a problem — that concept is “far, far from being proven,” Shawn said. Chen, a professor at the Arizona State University Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines, and Virotherapy.
Chen said scientists have used the plants to grow vaccines that can be extracted and used for injections. But producing edible vaccines is complicated in terms of correctly dosing and delivering the medicine through the gut. This approach, he said, would require much more work, including testing and approvals, before it could theoretically hit the market.
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared disinformation, including working with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to the misleading content circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.